Experts advocate for human rights to a healthy environment

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Claire Hettinger/The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

John Knox, Henry C. Lauerman Professor of International Law, at Wake Forest University, speaks during the iSEE Congress held at the University of Illinois on September 25, 2019.

Editor’s note: President Trump withdrew this week from the Paris Climate Agreement, a global effort to combat climate change. Earlier this year, Illinois Engagement Reporter Claire Hettinger attended the annual Institute for Sustainability, Energy and Environment Congress at the University of Illinois. This is what she learned about climate change. 

Claire Hettinger is the 2019 Illinois Humanities Engagement Fellow for the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.  Have a story idea, question or tip? Reach her at claire.hettinger@investigatemidwest.org

Kimberly Wasserman began working on environmental discrimination in Little Village, her Chicago neighborhood when her three-month-old son developed asthma. Her first goal was to close the coal-fired power plant less than a mile from her house. 

She and her community were successful after a 12-year campaign. Now, she is continuing the work to end environmental discrimination as the executive director of Illinois’ Little Village Environmental Justice Organization and chairperson of the Illinois Commission on Environmental Justice. 

Wasserman was one of the keynote speakers at the annual Institute for Sustainability, Energy and Environment Congress, hosted at the University of Illinois in September.

The theme of the event was Environmental Justice and she explained how it impacts her community and other low-income and communities of color. She also shared successful strategies she’s found through her work. 

Experts from around the nation gathered in Champaign for the iSEE Congress held at the University of Illinois to learn and discuss this human right to a healthy environment and sustainability justice. 

The principle is defined as an environmental projection to the rights to life, health, food, water, sanitation and property among others. 

This principle has been at the forefront of the climate change conversation as people around the world protest for it as part of a Global Climate Strike. 

Wasserman said she is glad to see people taking action because they need to “call that shit out.” 

The fight for a healthy environment takes on businesses, governments and the way that things are done in poor communities, Wasserman said. For example, now that the coal power plant is closed, warehouses and businesses want to move in. This would still bring pollution and other problems, she said. 

 “It’s a fight against climate change and also inherently a fight against capitalism,” Wasserman said. 

Some other areas discussed over the two-day meeting were Black Lives Matter, the rights of indigenous people and the impacts of biodiversity loss on various societies around the world.

The congress addressed how minority groups and indigenous populations suffer the most from climate change while contributing the least to the problem. Sustainability justice also looks at race, class, gender and age, conservation, resilience, and poverty. 

“Low-income people contribute the least to the problem and are impacted first by the problem,” Wasserman said. 

The second keynote speaker John Knox, Henry C. Lauerman Professor of International Law, at Wake Forest University focused his speech on the human right to a healthy environment. Knox was the first U.N. Independent Expert on Human Rights and the Environment from 2012 to 2018. 

“States have an obligation to protect human rights from environmental harm,” Knox said. 

However, The United States Constitution does not provide for the right to a healthy environment. Neither does the United Nations, Knox said. 

Knox said governments should not ignore warnings that there may be harm because he believes they have an obligation to protect their people’s rights to health and life from environmental problems. 

He presented his findings titled “Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment” at the congress. 

The declaration of human rights that is accepted by the United Nations does not include the right to a healthy environment. The United Nations denied making the human right to a healthy environment official in 1994. 

However, through his work, Knox believes that the United Nations should recognize the right to a healthy environment. A right provides more protection for people in the way of legal intentions and historical implications that are respected along with a human right. 

Knox said that human rights bodies have begun to protect a human right to a healthy environment in order to achieve other basic human rights like the right to water, food, life, health and property have led to the environment being protected in order to provide for these rights. 

For example, in the 2011 case SERAC v. Nigeria the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights Rights found that governments and states have a duty to protect human rights and the right to life in regard to pollution. 

A case from Nigerian, where the Nigerian Delta was polluted in the worse case of pollution recorded. The African Commission found that a failure to protect people from pollution is also a violation of human rights, Knox said. 

The right to a healthy environment is also protected in some cases when the right to life is involved, or at least Knox believes it should be. 

Environmental defenders, people who strive to protect the environment from being destroyed,  face threats all over the world, Knox said. This topic became a focus of his research with the U.N. These people are defined as individuals and groups who strive to protect human rights related to the environment, he said. 

An environmental defender is killed somewhere in the world every two days, and this is a conservative number, Knox said. 

“They often don’t know they are human rights defenders,” Knox said. “They are just trying to deal with the problem they are facing.” 

States have obligations to protect human rights defenders from being harmed and killed because of their work, he said. 

It is often indigenous people that are killed, he said. 

“Indigenous people are on the front lines of the environment and on the front lines of protecting the natural world,” he said. 

Claire Hettinger is the 2019 Illinois Humanities Engagement Fellow for the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.  Have a story idea, question or tip? Reach her at claire.hettinger@investigatemidwest.org